With Leave No Trace, the Director of Winter’s Bone Heads Back Into the Wild

In this subtle yet devastating drama, Debra Granik paints another finely shaded portrait of a veteran with PTSD.

Movie still: Thomasin McKenzie stands while Ben Foster tugs at an object around her neck.
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. Bleecker Street

In her follow-up to Winter’s Bone, the documentary portrait Stray Dog, director Debra Granik illustrated the long tail of trauma through the struggles of Vietnam War veteran Ron Hall. In a therapy session, Hall—an amiable biker we see devote himself to friends, family, neighbors, and fellow vets—looks back on the time he cut off and wore an enemy’s ear around his neck and wonders how he could have done such a thing. He wants to forgive himself for his savagery during wartime, but he can’t: He doesn’t know how to do so without dishonoring his brothers in arms. Later, Hall listens with compassion as a more recent veteran recalls another horrific mutilation that left the younger man sobbing, “How can a person be human and do that to another human?” With vérité detachment, Granik chronicles in Stray Dog how Hall’s community of former servicemen sustain themselves by giving meaning to experiences that haunt them decades later.

If the vet in Granik’s latest film, Leave No Trace, has made sense of his agonies, we’re never privy to that resolution. Starring Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as father and teenage daughter, the superlative drama explores, with acute sensitivity and narrative finesse, how trauma molds a family’s life, threatens to spill over into the next generation, and might finally be withstood. That description makes this adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment sound like a miserable time at the movies, but Granik deftly navigates us through a series of uncontrived twists and turns that makes us treat Will and Tom’s story the way we do our own: with great uncertainty of its shape and structure, but faith that things have to turn out OK.

Which war Will fought in and why he suffers from PTSD, we never learn. Such details seem beside the point when we meet him and his daughter in Forest Park, a 5,000-acre natural preserve off downtown Portland, Oregon. Father and child sleep in a tent, drink rainwater, and subsist on boiled eggs and foraged mushrooms—and when that’s not enough, groceries from a nearby supermarket. (For money, Will sells prescription meds to a camp of veterans who have settled elsewhere in the park.) When Will and Tom are discovered by police—for sleeping on government property, not the drug deals—the authorities have just as much trouble categorizing them as we do. Will and the unschooled Tom aren’t exactly survivalists, or off the grid, or homeless, but there’s truth to those labels, too. The two would prefer to be left alone to their devices. But after officials place them in a comfortable home in a small town where Will is immediately offered a job and Tom encounters kids her own age, it becomes clearer how much wartime trauma has affected their lives—and how much further it’ll continue to do so.

Unlike the war dramas aimed at military audiences, like American Sniper and the recent Nat Geo miniseries The Long Road Home, the naturalistic Leave No Trace is unconcerned with the tropes and talking points, however important, of life after Iraq or Afghanistan. (Foster and McKenzie’s spectacularly subtle performances, as well as the largely unknown supporting cast, help you forget you’re watching a movie until character actress Dale Dickey shows up in the third act.) Rather than a stand-in for the troops at large, Will is an outlier, though his restlessness—a seeming desire to drown out his thoughts with physical exhaustion—is familiar to other characters with military backgrounds. And while Will provides Tom with as ideal an education and environment as can be possible in a two-person ecosphere, the reality that they’re effectively both captives of his PTSD forces the girl to investigate what a community, with its collective wisdom, might offer. The fissure between father and daughter approaches like a snake. It sneaks up on you, then leaves you in paralyzed shock.

By the time Granik started following Ron Hall, he’d had nearly four decades to think about his time in Vietnam. Leave No Trace finds Will in the thick of his black cloud, its intractability co-existing with his gentle spirit and his reasonable skepticism about civilization’s advantages. The ancient trees that he used to live among are shot as shelter, resource, and monument. In contrast, the puny Douglas firs farmed by his new employer for the Christmas season comprise nature subordinated to chintz. The injustice is perhaps slight, but understandably intolerable. There are already too many things Will can’t bear to think about.